Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Martin Henry | The Holness Gov’t – one year on

Published:Sunday | February 26, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Martin Henry
Health Minister Christopher Tufton listens keenly to Dr Myo Kyaw Oo (left) while Dr Winston De La Haye, chief medical officer, looks on during a tour of a section of the Bellevue Hospital last December. Tufton has been praised by Martin Henry for the energy and professionalism he has brought to the health portfolio.
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Yesterday was the first anniversary of that February 25 general election that returned Andrew Holness and the JLP to government after one term out. Had it not been a weekend day, the 25th would have been payday. But the prime minister was not actually sworn in until March 3, the date that constitutionally marks the real end of the old Government and the start of the new one.

Payday comes up because the promise in the JLP's Partnership for Prosperity 10-Point Plan of raising the income tax threshold to $1.5 million helped more than most other things to power the underdog party to a razor-thin electoral victory. The Government has been harshly judged for failing to deliver on the promise on target and without new taxation. Governments fail at many things as electoral promises buck up on governance realities.

But how do we rationally assess the performance of a new administration? As a citizen, I got the distinct general impression that a businesslike administration had vigorously taken charge of the Government of Jamaica, and, over the year gone, has managed to do no worse than any of its recent predecessors. The Government has functioned with its one-seat majority. The Cabinet has held firm without any changes. There has been no major scandal, unless the bushing programme that 'coincided' with the local government elections in November is so counted.

The JLP in Government managed to remain in sufficiently good standing with the electorate to have taken nine of 14 municipal corporations from none in 2012.

But the single biggest surprise for this citizen was the rapid metamorphosis and maturing of Andrew Holness as a serious leader and prime minister in clear command of a government. The Gleaner is quite right in naming him Jamaica's newsperson for 2016: Two election victories under his belt, high visibility, and a commanding control of Government and, apparently, of party.

 

ASSESSING ISSUES

 

We need an assessment grid to do justice to assessing government. I am proposing, and using, a mix of performance on the major issues of governance running across administrations, the performance of ministers and ministries against specific portfolio responsibilities, while trying not to be unduly influenced by visibility and popularity, and deliveries on specific commitments.

What are the really big issues? Economy, security, energy, justice, and governance itself.

The Holness administration successfully concluded the cross-administration IMF extended fund facility agreement ahead of schedule and secured a precautionary standby agreement under which no money will be actually borrowed unless an unpredictable crisis need arises. The dollar continued its slide under Shaw from the Phillips era at Finance before rebounding slightly and stabilising at around 128.

The Economic Growth Council established by the new administration has been touting 5-in-4, achieving an annual growth rate of five per cent in four years, one of which is now gone. Growth remains sluggish but achieved two per cent in the last year.

I remain unconvinced that the superministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation is a functional entity for generating growth and creating jobs. There is the very clearest impression that its many component portfolios and ministers continue to operate as discrete entities under one big umbrella in the tradition of the public service, which can defeat any prime minister.

No master plan for growth and job creation has emerged in a year. The EGC remains a nebulous body without any distinguishable anchor in the public service.

And one gets the distinct impression that Minister Karl Samuda is simply running between his portfolios in that other superministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, rather than joining up things for synergy.

PSTOC has joined the EGC as a new creation by the Holness administration. Public-sector transformation has remained a glacially slow work in progress. But the space for 'buckshuffling' is rapidly closing off as the downward adjustment of the public-sector wage bill as a percentage of GDP is an IMF-driven obligation falling due. The Government has made the right sounds about closing and merging entities, something that has been talked up at least from the time of the Nettleford Committee on Government Structure 25 years ago.

The Government wisely kept ESET to lead energy diversification. The historic introduction of LNG took place in the year, another case of one administration reaping the fruit from a tree planted by another. Low oil prices continued to benefit the country and the Government.

The biggest challenge to the Government in the year was the spike in murders. I do not share the view that Minister Montague is unequal to the task of national security. He certainly is no greater failure that a whole series of ministers before him going back to when this whole murder business took off in the 1970s. Montague has brought a refreshing engagement to this most onerous responsibility and has announced a number of initiatives. And a government, for the first time at last, has grasped the necessity for directing substantial additional budgetary support to national security.

 

JUSTICE REFORM

 

Delroy Chuck has brought a burst of energy to budget-starved Justice, building on careful groundwork left behind by Mark Golding. He has bucked the sacred cow judiciary, pushing for a speeding up of trials, and has started to do important little things like improving courthouses. Justice, a fundamental responsibility of any government, has a long way to go.

I am thoroughly impressed with Kamina Johnson Smith at Foreign Affairs. Quietly managing our external affairs, keeping Jamaica on the world map, and facing the media well.

Ruel Reid has presided over the Government's honouring its promise to provide subvention support to offset the loss to schools from the intemperate removal of auxiliary fees. There were already broad plans in place from previous administrations for education transformation. I haven't seen much for Youth. Reid has talked a lot as information minister. But Information rightly belongs in the Office of the Prime Minister. On several occasions, the minister embarrassingly found himself outside the loop and having to face the media with his pants down.

Ed Bartlett has come home to his natural environment in Tourism and has been reaping a lot of fruit from Wykeham McNeill's trees, plus pushing some initiatives of his own. Tourism is awaiting a longer-term transformation of the product to deliver more value to the Jamaican economy.

Chris Tufton will be remembered for ZIKV, for which he was far more kindly treated by media and the public than Fenton Ferguson for chik-V and for the noxious fumes mess at Cornwall Regional Hospital. Tufton has brought focused energy and an engaged professionalism to running Health and should be remembered, too, for getting the nation to move for health and for trying to tackle the migration of health professionals.

Mike Henry has bold visions for Transport - rail, road, air and sea - but has spent the year struggling with the chaotic public transport system. On the Mining side, bauxite remains in the doldrums, no fault of the minister.

Desmond McKenzie, like others before him, is still promising local government reform. He has presided over the creation of 'municipal corporations' from the previous administration, tackled corruption in parish governments, and continued the struggle with solid-waste disposal. This is one ministry that should become redundant from its success.

Andrew Wheatley has brought vigorous energy and inside knowledge to the Science and Technology portfolio, which is yet to be strongly linked to the economy. There is to be a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. On the Energy side, he has had the great good fortune of presiding over the advent of LNG, coming over from the last administration, but has had to wrestle with the problems of a malfunctioning JPS.

With Shahine Robinson at Labour, the year has been relatively quiet in industrial relations but with Government's own employees restive over the job implications of public-sector transformation and a continued wage freeze. The PATH welfare scheme has been expanded. Occupational health and safety issues resurfaced without the law in place.

'Babsy' Grange has been quite visible for Entertainment, Sport and Culture but has offered us no real plan for converting these portfolios into real income earners for the economy. She has been much less visible for Gender.

The junior stock market has been saved from the axe, as promised in the 10-Point Plan. There has been reduction of some taxes but with the looming threat of more to fund the income tax-relief plan.

Divestments have been paltry, and not one state-owned company has yet been listed on the JSE. No water plan has been presented, much less acted upon. The NHT has been raided rather than reformed.

A couple of investment ambassadors have been appointed, but we haven't seen anything brought by them home yet. Jobs remain as elusive as ever with the official unemployment level holding pretty firmly in the usual region of around 13 per cent.

I am not aware of a single town centre for which revitalisation has started as promised. And they all remain centres of public disorder and chaos, feeding crime.

But it's only a year. We have a government that compares favourably with its predecessors for both performance and non-performance in a weak governance environment.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.